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Germany

German autobahn's 'backdoor' privatization row

Germany is opening the door to the privatization of one of its most-loved institutions - the autobahn - according to campaigners. Critics also fear that other public services could soon be sacrificed to investors.

Germany could approving a new constitutional change that would open several "back doors" to the privatization of the country's public services.

The arduous debate over a constitutional change that involves the alteration of no fewer than 13 different articles in Germany's Basic Law may end this Friday, when the Bundestag votes on the amendment. This would change regulations governing the planning, building and operation of Germany's highway networks, so that so-called PPPs - or public-private partnerships - could operate highways in the future.

Even more worrying for opponents, the changes could also allow private investment in the building of schools. Critics fear that the draft alteration would loosen regulations on cooperation between the federal government and local authorities to allow the federal government to introduce PPPs into the funding process for school building.

"That's a significant promotion for PPPs," said Carl Wassmuth, of the citizens' initiative Gemeingut in BürgerInnenhand ("common property in citizens' hands" - GiB), which is campaigning against the measure.

SPD concerns

The government can only get the required two-thirds majority in the German parliament's lower house if the vast majority of the representatives of the two coalition parties - Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) - vote in favor.

Deutschland Thomas Oppermann, Fraktionsvorsitzender der SPD (picture-alliance/dpa/B.v. Jutrczenka)

SPD parliamentary leader Oppermann has been accused of trying to trick his own MPs

That means that Tuesday's meeting of the center-left SPD's parliamentary faction will prove crucial. Back in 2016, the SPD's then economy minister, Sigmar Gabriel, initially promised rank-and-file MPs that privatization would be ruled out. According to a report in Monday's Berliner Zeitung, the SPD leadership has a cunning plan to get its more skeptical parliamentarians to toe the line, by promising that privatization would be ruled out of a new compromise.

But concerns remain that the federal government could use PPPs to create the conditions for de facto privatization in the future. After the new law was approved by Merkel's cabinet, several SPD Bundestag members voiced their concerns, which caused a delay in the vote until this week to accommodate internal party negotiations, and caused SPD parliamentary leader Thomas Oppermann to promise that the new law would not entail a privatization.

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Tax to ride on German autobahns

That was reiterated by the CDU. "We are not privatizing anything," the party's budget policy spokesman Eckhardt Rehberg told DW. "The material property of the autobahn remains with the federal government. Also the infrastructure company that we are founding does not allow any private investment."

Rehberg also denied that school building would end up being privatized. "No, that's wrong," he said. "We're creating a fund of 3.5 billion euros ($3.9 billion) for school renovations. That has nothing to do with PPPs."

Extra help for small states

Rehberg's explanation for the constitutional alteration sounds reasonable. "Smaller states are not able to administer larger projects. They cannot organize building rights, renovation, and maintenance within a reasonable amount of time," he said. "We have massively increased investment infrastructure, and we want to invest even more, and shorten planning times."

Bundestagsabgeordneter Eckhardt Rehberg (picture-alliance/dpa/B. Wüstneck)

Rehberg insisted that the autobahns could not be privatized

But Wassmuth didn't think much of this. "PPPs are a type of privatization, in which private investors provide the money in advance, but then demand returns," he said. "Everything has to be paid back, including interest, from the public coffers."

Germany's Federal Audit Office once concluded that roadbuilding projects involving PPPs end up costing the state an average of 20 percent more, because of the profits that private companies require.

Objections among civil society organizations and the public have grown. And an online petition, organized by GiB, has collected over 100,000 signatures, with protests and press conferences planned in Berlin throughout the week.

Both of Germany's parliamentary opposition parties, the Greens and the Left party, have vocally protested the plans. Two of its prominent members took to the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper on Monday to decry all the loopholes in the law that would allow privatization in the future - not least because, if the CDU wins September's election and is elected with its preferred Free Democratic Party (FDP) coalition partner, it will be in a position to vote through necessary measures in the future.

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